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date: 11 August 2020

Summary and Keywords

Heterodox work in Global Political Economy (GPE) finds its motive force in challenging the ontological atomism of International Political Economy (IPE) orthodoxy. Various strains of heterodoxy that have grown out of dependency theory and World-Systems Theory (WST), for example, emphasize the social whole: Individual parts are given form and meaning within social relations of domination produced by a history of violence and colonial conquest. An atomistic approach, they stress, seems designed to ignore this history of violence and relations of domination by making bargaining among independent units the key to explaining the current state of international institutions. For IPE, it is precisely this atomistic approach, largely inspired by the ostensible success of neoclassical economics, which justifies its claims to scientific rigor. International relations can be modeled as a market-like space, in which individual actors, with given preferences and endowments, bargain over the character of international institutional arrangements. Heterodox scholars’ treatment of social processes as indivisible wholes places them beyond the pale of acceptable scientific practice. Heterodoxy appears, then, as the constitutive outside of IPE orthodoxy.

Heterodox GPE perhaps reached its zenith in the 1980s. Just as heterodox work was being cast out from the temple of International Relations (IR), heterodox scholars, building on earlier work, produced magisterial studies that continue to merit our attention. We focus on three texts: K. N. Chaudhuri’s Asia Before Europe (1990), Eric Wolf’s Europe and the People Without History (1982), and L. S. Stavrianos’s Global Rift (1981). We select these texts for their temporal and geographical sweep and their intellectual acuity. While Chaudhuri limits his scope to the Indian Ocean over a millennium, Wolf and Stavrianos attempt an anthropology and a history, respectively, of European expansion, colonialism, and the rise of capitalism in the modern era. Though the authors combine different elements of material, political, and social life, all three illustrate the power of seeing the “social process” as an “indivisible whole,” as Schumpeter discusses in the epigram below. “Economic facts,” the region, or time period they extract for detailed scrutiny are never disconnected from the “great stream” or process of social relations. More specifically, Chaudhuri’s work shows notably that we cannot take for granted the distinct units that comprise a social whole, as does the IPE orthodoxy. Rather, such units must be carefully assembled by the scholar from historical evidence, just as the institutions, practices, and material infrastructure that comprise the unit were and are constructed by people over the longue durée. Wolf starts with a world of interaction, but shows that European expansion and the rise and spread of capitalism intensified cultural encounters, encompassing them all within a global division of labor that conditioned the developmental prospects of each in relation to the others. Stavrianos carries out a systematic and relational history of the First and Third Worlds, in which both appear as structural positions conditioned by a capitalist political economy. By way of conclusion, we suggest that these three works collectively inspire an effort to overcome the reification and dualism of agents and structures that inform IR theory and arrive instead at “flow.”

Keywords: unit-level explanation, violence, domination, interconnection, social wholes, flow, heterodoxy, orthodoxy

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